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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Higher Ground

Stevie Wonder is one of those performers whose musicianship and talent for melody, arrangement and feel is unsurpassed. I think that one of the 10 Commandments of Bar Bands should be "thou shalt not play a Stevie Wonder song", having heard "Superstition" slaughtered on the altar of rock cover band guitarists one too many times. Anyway, I digress, here's some classic SW to start the post:



Nice sentiment, but why should we try and reach the highest ground? What does this mean anyway?

Religions all focus on this topic and a good place to start is looking at their thoughts on the matter. For brevity I'll take the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas and his Seven Deadly Sins as representative of the religious stance. These are a distillation of those activities and attitudes that are most likely to condemn us to an eternity somewhere unpleasant:

  • Pride: an excessive belief in one's own abilities
  • Envy: the desire for others' traits, status, abilities, or situation
  • Gluttony: an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires.
  • Lust: a craving for the pleasures of the body.
  • Anger: fury over love; resentment and hate
  • Greed: the desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual
  • Sloth: the avoidance of physical or spiritual work

Some of these sound like fun, so why are they so bad? What harm can a little indulgence cause? The answer is, I think, that they are all paths toward lower ground, terrain where a bigger perspective is not possible, where we expend energy on gratifying urges rather than making a positive impact. As Carlos Castaneda put it:

"I warn you: Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself and yourself alone one question: Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same. They lead nowhere. They are paths going through the brush or into the brush or under the brush. Does this path have a heart is the only question. If it does then the path is good…if it doesn’t then it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere, but one has a heart and the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as your follow it will be one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong, the other weakens you"

In Bear Grylls' autobiography "Mud, Sweat and Tears" he describes his error during a critical timed hike as part of an SAS selection test:

"I dropped off the high ground too early, and soon found myself floundering again in the worse of the boggy marsh. Burning up energy and precious time. I could feel my tired legs leaking energy, and the weight of the pack was pushing my sinking legs further and further into the boggy ground with each step. To make matters worse, I could see distant figures on the skyline above steaming past me"

This is a good metaphor for the reasons why we should not opt for the apparent comfort of the lower ground, those vices encapsulated by the Deadly Sins. Balance is lost, the more we indulge, the more we need to satisfy, the more our mental energy is bogged down while the opportunity to make a positive impact passes us by.  This is borne out by the spectacular falls of those in high places--from Tiger Woods to Bernard Madoff--where the root cause is always one of the seven.

In this Battle of Everyday that we are thrown into, winning, making an impact, depends on maintaining a strategic advantage. A major part of this advantage is keeping the higher ground; a position that develops power, enables vision and gives the edge over opponents in lower positions. This is true figuratively as well as in actual combat, where higher ground gives the individual or army a superior position, with more options for attack or defense. Higher ground could mean better fighting technique, better training or stronger spirit, all of which are elements of a higher state. Likewise, outside of combat, not being dragged to a lower position by the numerous temptations of modern life, cultivating discipline and control, develops a tangible power. It's a practical approach, freeing available energy for fun, creativity, beneficial work, altruism and relationship-building. These all improve the impact we make, and is one explanation of the principles of karma--what goes around comes around--as the higher we raise ourselves, the more advantages we obtain from the higher position. If you want to make an impact, gotta heed Stevie's advice:

Gonna keep on trying till I reach the highest ground....


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